CREATE NOT ACCLAIM?

Photographer Carrie Mae Weems was named as a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. Weems work is focused on current issues facing African Americans. Her work as stated (here) by the MacArthur Foundation, examines “the complex and contradictory legacy of African American identity, class, and culture in the United States.”

Recently an essay appeared on Slate titled, “Why are there no MacArthur Geniuses from the South?” The post originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed, an online news source featuring “a powerful suite of tools to help higher education professionals get jobs and colleges identify and hire employees” and is “a gathering place for all of the many constituents and diverse institutions that make up the rich web of higher education.” In short, it is a website to help educationists get the job one wants and a place to promote a broader community of educators. My wife works in higher education and based upon some conversations we have on the drive home from work, if there is a place where community needs promotion it is academia with its pushing and shoving for prestige and tenure by those employed to educate our youth.

The essay argues, by way of asking why not, that there are not enough MacArthur Fellows from the South. The author, John Warner provides what he believes to be stand out reasons as to why he has never been named as a MacArthur Fellow with number three getting most directly to the point:

1. I haven’t done anything worthy of being chosen as a MacArthur Fellow. Often, the most obvious answer is indeed the correct one.
2. I’m getting too old to be a genius. Of this year’s class, more than half are either exactly my age (43) or younger.
3. I live and work in the South.

Below I have compiled a list of my own. It is of things I have never been awarded because they are events that I have elected to not be part of by way of intentional or passive decision-making. Categorically they have made me in part who I am.

1. I have never won first place in a potato sack race because I have never participated in a potato sack race.
2. In second grade I did not win the Michael Jackson look-a-like contest because I did not participate in the Michael Jackson look-a-like contest
3. In second grade I did not win the Madonna look-a-like contest because I did not participate in the Madonna look-a-like contest.

Despite these early setbacks, I went on to attend college. I attended a small private religious institution about one hour from where I grew up. Given that the college was small and private and therefore more expensive than state colleges, scholarships helped to fund many students’ educations. Some scholarships were awarded to minority students in an attempt to diversify the otherwise homogenous, white student population. During my time attending this college, there was an instance in which a fellow student was denied a minority scholarship for African Americans. He was denied not by luck of the draw or poor merit. It was because he was not considered African American despite being born in Egypt and having moved to the United States, thereby making him categorically an African American. The purveyors and proprietors of this scholarship had perhaps made a mistake on their part: a typo of sorts within the list of qualifications on the application. The problem was one of nomenclature. They had intended one thing, all likely unassuming of another, which was a broader interpretation of the term African American.  The scholarship was intended for a particular ethnic group. And although it is typically understood what is meant by the term African American, it could be argued both ways in this case. By geography, the student was African American despite being Caucasian. By social class and race he was not.

The categorization of people often presents itself as problematic, introducing bias and unfair treatment of one particular people over another by way of exclusion. Such bias is what Carrie Mae Weems’ work is in part about and justly so, it is such bias that needs addressing. In the case argued by John Warner, it is also a categorical inequality that he attempts to address. However, the argument although admittedly a bit tongue in cheek, does not carry with it the same weight that ironically, the now MacArthur Fellow (that being Weems) attempts to address in the very work for which she was awarded the title. I do not believe that Warner is equating racial inequality with award distribution inequality amongst Southerners. But it is not a commonly held sentiment that Southerners have been the targets of unfair or unjust treatment. In fact as history shows unfortunately, excluding African American Southerners, it has been just the opposite.  I should note that John Warner is a satirical writer whose work has been published by McSweeney’s. I should also note that first, I am a Southerner having been born in Texas and spent my entire life (excluding these most recent five years in California) living in Mississippi and second, I agree with Warner that there is but a small group of Southerners amongst those deemed “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation. More individuals from the south should be considered or at least less from the places that a surprising majority due hail. Many worthwhile creatives are from the South. Let me name three: William Eggleston, Flannery O’Connor and Wendell Berry.

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While the awarding body members of the MacArthur Foundation might not have it out specifically for southerners, they are perhaps inadvertently ignoring southerners. This is central to Warner’s argument and it might very well be true. Award processes and events where in by participants are selected by means of judgment are typically an incestuous affair. I have been fortunate to have my work exhibited in a few group shows. For these shows, some people were selected to have work included and some were not. And in every group show of which I have been a part, I have had some connection to those who were responsible for producing the exhibit. It is a process not without bias but it is also how the selection process works. I do it myself with each issue of Strant. I have yet to seek out, nor do I intend to seek out, people I do not know to be included in the magazine or interviewed on the blog. My intent is to encourage the work of those whom I know rather they are regarded with high esteem within the world of photography or if they are absolute unknowns. And if one believes this to be an unfair process, then I hope one day I have the opportunity to meet you. I have found that through the short life of this magazine and blog thus far that the means of getting the interview or producing each issue is far more rewarding for me at least than the end product. I hope those whom I have called upon for help in doing so feel the same.

My intent is not to single out John Warner as self-loathing. With him I am hopefully promoting a more balanced idea of reward and recognition. Nor is my intent to dilute the value of being named a MacArthur Fellow. We all deserve to have our voice be heard. And being listened to and awarded for one’s creative voice carries with it often deserved recognition and with that recognition new opportunity. But perhaps what we need more is less about individual achievement. Perhaps what we need is to value intimate work with, knowledge of, and strong relationships with others within a tangible and less-about-prestige community of like-minded as well as unlike-minded people. Praise can take a back seat. Get to know those who hold power to influence if acclaim is what you seek. Get to know those who care about you more than they do your work if what you need is honest reward.